Staff retention in Delaware’s prison system was an important issue at Wednesday’s Joint Finance Committee budget hearing.
Monroe Hudson, the commissioner of the Delaware Department of Correction, told Sen. Laura Sturgeon, a Democrat who represents the Greenville area, that he thinks the department has made progress since 2017. It now has 2,647 full-time employees, the most since at least 2008.
“I can’t say our numbers have gotten better, but I am very optimistic,” he said. “We have 329 vacancies, about a 17% vacancy rate for correction officers,” Hudson said.
The class hired last December was the largest class hired in the last two years, he said. It started with 36 and dipped to about 30. A class tha
t starts in two weeks has enrolled 28.
“I’m optimistic that we’re starting to turn the tide and things are gonna get better. We’re offering a $10,000 sign-on bonus. We’re offering the cadet lodging if you live past 75 miles of our training facility. We’ve offered some retention bonuses going back a couple of fiscal years using ARPA funds trying to keep staff here and keep them from retiring.”
Several factors contribute to a lack of retention, including less pay and odd hours, he said
“During COVID we saw a tremendous increase in the number of retirements,” Hudson said. “We get on the other side of COVID and then we have what they call the great resignation and there’s so many job opportunities.”
One academy student “went to the NAPA Auto Parts for more money and a more stable schedule, straight day work, weekends off. Young people coming into our industry, whether it be probation and parole, or to be a correction officer, they’re gonna have to work some weekends. and correction officers are gonna have to work a lot of evenings. A lot of weekends. So that seems to be a factor as well.
“Because they come on, they work permanent 4 to 12 with Tuesdays and Wednesdays off, and they see another job opportunity that pays 25 more cents an hour with weekends off, so they’re taking that job.
“So I’m hoping … as some job markets slow up, people come back to state government. So hopefully we’ve turned that corner.”
Ruth Briggs King, a Republican who represents the Millsboro area, said before the hearing that there needs to be enough funding for officers and they need to address retention rates.
“Looking at the increase that we see, less in incarceration, more in community corrections, which is parole and probation,” she said. “So I want to make sure that we’re funding adequately for the increased load that we placed on those officers. You can’t decrease the number of those being supervised and not increase those who are doing the supervision and re-entry work.”
Patricia May, a retired counselor, spoke during the public comment period to pay raises for counselors and non-uniform staff.
When she retired, with 30 years of experience in corrections, she was “only making in the low 40s. If I had not had a husband that could help support me, I wouldn’t have been able to afford my own housing. When I looked at the pay scale just now, it looks like we’re still extremely low.”
Citing her duty during the 2017 Vaughn prison riot, “I was in just as dangerous a situation as the officers.”
Department of Correction requests
Hudson had slides during the hearing that showed the inmate population decreased from 15,995 in January 2019 to 11,925 in January 2023. Pretrial population increased during that period from 1,530 to 2,415.
The department has proposed $400,500,000 for its 2024 fiscal year budget and is requesting an additional $24,748,100 to cover other costs, which includes $15,144,700 in “door opener” requests, $9,178,200 in discretionary growth requests and $425,000 in one-time funding requests.
The door opener requests mostly cover salary ($12,156,300). The remaining covers the inflated costs of inmate health care ($2,179,000) and food ($809,400).
The other funding requests include $1,890,100 to address inflation in dry cleaning services and fuel costs, $215,100 to replace tasers, $71,200 to replace ballistic vests, $91,900 for a security system, $45,500 to increase the hourly wages of inmates and $101,700 to install two washers and dryers at the Community Corrections Treatment Center near Smyrna.
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